WASHINGTON --The pardon of the president was a fire bell in the night, awakening the nation from its September slumber, prompting disbelief and outrage. It led to the resignation of Gerald R. Ford's own press secretary, who wouldn't explain his boss's decision because he couldn't defend it. It launched 1,000 conspiracy theories, the perfect coda to perhaps the greatest political conspiracy of American history. It probably ended Ford's political career.
This morning the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation is to present its Profile in Courage Award to Ford, the accidental president who pardoned Richard M. Nixon more than a quarter of a century ago.
Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage" was a slender but stirring book of lessons from politics and history, and today's award ceremony, to be held at the library on Columbia Point, is itself a lesson - not merely in heroism, but also in redemption.
It reminds us that heroism doesn't always win the onlooking crowd's acclaim. It reminds us that the jury room of history tolerates no hurried verdicts. It reminds us, too, that columnists and commentators can often be wrong, especially when they agree, especially when there is a touch of self-righteousness to their consensus.
Seldom has a presidential decision prompted such swift derision. Ford had been in office a month, succeeding to the White House after the resignation of Nixon, itself the culmination of a two-year political drama that left the nation exhausted and dispirited.
The new president had opened the doors and windows of the Executive Mansion, was beginning to air out the nation's politics, and even though his aides forced his most memorable line ("our long national nightmare is over") upon him, there was a sense of freshness in the capital and the country.
Then Ford, exercising his power to pardon, swept away the welter of lawsuits that had surrounded Nixon. The words "deal" and "bargain" filled the air.
The president's reasoning was simple. An indictment of Nixon was likely. The lengthy court trial of a disgraced leader would be a spectacle. At the very least it would be a distraction. The old antagonisms, the old resentments, the old suspicions - all of them would get a new hearing, and a new lease on life. Ford couldn't tolerate that. It threatened his presidency. It threatened his sense of dignity.
And so he did it. He did what no aide suggested he do. He did what he thought was best. He swallowed hard and knew he would have to swallow the consequences. He faced a storm of criticism, threats, charges. For a time it seemed as if all the contention he had spared Nixon was instead being directed at him. He traveled up to Capitol Hill - for 24 years his home - and, in an extraordinary gesture, opened himself to the questions and accusations of members of Congress.
Today the decision to pardon Nixon stands as Ford's greatest achievement. We know now what we could not have known then: that the stain of Nixon's resignation could not be wiped away by a presidential pardon, but that the legal and political aftershocks could be softened by one. At the time it looked as if Ford were sparing Nixon. Today it looks as if he were sparing the nation.
"We now recognize that Ford was there when the country needed him," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat and brother of the late President John F. Kennedy. "He was calm and steady at a time of emotional upheaval and disillusionment. When he said our long national nightmare was over, the country breathed a sigh of relief. He was an uncommonly good and decent man."
Ford never - not for a moment, those close to him say - changed his mind about the pardon. Many of those who criticized him have changed their minds.
One of them is Senator Kennedy himself, who supported giving the award to Ford. Campaigning for Democratic candidates in California shortly after the pardon, Kennedy called the action "the culmination to the Watergate cover up" and, at a painters' union convention, said: "Instead of turning away from Watergate and instead of building on the early record of [his] first weeks in office, instead of setting new standards of respect for the presidency, the premature pardon of the former president has sown new doubts."
He no longer feels that way. "Now we clearly recognize Ford put the needs of the country ahead of his own," Kennedy said last week. "We now know it took great courage to make that pardon. President Ford recognized we had to return to the nation's business, and pursuing Nixon through the courts would have diverted the country's interest."
Ford, 87, was an unlikely choice for the award; by contrast, the "lifetime achievement" award, being given at the same ceremony today to Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil-rights activist whose life is a testament to heroism, was a natural selection.
Ford's name came up in a nomination made by a high school student. At the same time, both David McCullough, the biographer of Harry Truman and John Adams, and David Burke, the former president of CBS News and a onetime aide to Edward Kennedy, began to think that the 38th president deserved the prize. When they talked about it at a meeting of the prize-selection committee in New York, they believed they would not prevail. But there was no opposition in the group, which included both Senator Kennedy and President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline.
"Ford's decision to pardon Nixon was the right thing for the country and it was a brave political act," said McCullough. "I came to that conclusion as one who, at the time, thought it was appalling, awful."
Ford was unaccustomed to controversy. He was, above all, well-liked on Capitol Hill. It was the Democratic leaders of Congress, Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma and Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, who pressed Nixon to select Ford as vice president after Spiro T. Agnew resigned.
Ford had been presented with the pardon issue a month before he made his fateful choice. He was vice president then, and the posse of prosecutors and politicians was closing in on the president. Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, asked to see Ford. They met, alone, in the Executive Office Building. Haig presented Ford with a written pardon for Nixon, bidding him to sign it, telling him, as Ford put it: "Nixon would agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new president - Gerald Ford - would pardon him."
Ford said no.
He became president eight days later. The period that followed was difficult. Ford presided over persistent inflation, the fall of Saigon, the capture of the merchant ship Mayaguez, a summit with Leonid Brezhnev at Vladivostok, a controversial human-rights agreement at Helsinki.
But none of those issues was as stubborn as the Nixon pardon. He later said he thought it cost him the presidency. James Cannon, who later served as his domestic-policy adviser, said it "shadowed the whole administration." In November 1976, Americans voted for a new start from a new face, Jimmy Carter. The two men, bitter rivals in 1976, later became intimate friends. Now Ford, who in his remarks today is to speak of the virtue of moderation, wins nearly universal admiration.
"There are very few in our line of work you can call noble and someone of great grace and civility," said former senator Alan K. Simpson, the Wyoming Republican. "He knew exactly what would rain down on his head, and he went ahead and did it. And he did what he did for the country. The integrity glows, comes right out."
Before beginning his Inaugural Address, Carter saluted his rival, thanking him for "all he has done to heal our land." Now the wounds around Ford's pardon of Nixon are themselves healed.
And in a way, the Profile in Courage award brings part of the American story to full circle.
The author of the book and the phrase served two terms in the House with Ford. Their offices were beside each other, and the two men, who seldom voted together, nonetheless often walked back from the floor together, talking about politics and their war experiences and their home states. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 against another young congressman and Navy veteran from that era, Nixon of California. Ford served on the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. Ford pardoned Nixon. Now an award inspired by Kennedy honors Ford for that pardon. No unfinished business remains.